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Rebecca Wragg Sykes


Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Ideas about the Neanderthals have varied widely since their fossils were first discovered in the mid-nineteenth century, but since the 1950s the trend in science has been towards recognising them as a fully human species or subspecies, particularly following the sequencing their genome, which revealed that all modern humans outside sub-Saharan Africa have some Neanderthal DNA.

Popular culture has not kept pace with the change in how scientists see the Neanderthals. Many people still think of them as primitive 'cave men', who became extinct because they were unable to compete with modern humans. An important part of Wragg Sykes's motivation in writing this book has been to show how wrong such ideas are.

She provides a very up-to-date account of the present state of our knowledge of these fascinating people, mostly from an archaeological point of view (she is a professional archaeologist). There is plenty of science here—the archaeological evidence for her statements is always provided—but the language is informal and she has no hesitation in saying how she feels about what she is describing. Each chapter is prefaced by a short lyrical passage which is supposed to set the scene.

Modern research has revealed a remarkable amount of detail about the Neanderthals. We know how they made their tools, how they hunted, what they hunted, where they lived (by no means always in caves), how they treated their dead and much else. Yet there are quite basic questions that are still unanswered and are perhaps unanswerable. For example, we know they used fire in hearths but we don't know if they could make fire themselves or depended on naturally occurring fires in their environment. It's also uncertain if they wore clothes, although there is indirect evidence that they processed hides. Of course, for much of their existence they had to cope with severe cold during ice ages, so it seems almost certain that they did wear clothes at least part of the time.

In any case, it is wrong to picture the Neanderthals as always living in cold surroundings. They existed for a very long time, several hundred thousand years, and for some of that time they were in temperate or warm environments, amid forests. And their geographical range was also vast, extending from western Europe to central Asia and from Siberia to the Mediterranean. This great variety of environments must have called for very different lifestyles.

Another question that may never be answered definitively concerns their ability to speak, Anatomically they must have been able to produce modulated sounds, and it's difficult not to believe that they would have used these to communicate, but how far their linguistic abilities went is inevitably uncertain. They had a complex culture which had to be transmitted somehow, but did this need to be done verbally?

A closely related question concerns their capacity for abstract thought. In the past many scientsts have doubted this. However, a truly extraordinary recent discovery in south-west France has put the question in a quite new light.

Deep in a cave system near the town of Bruniquel lies a mystery which was revealed for the first time only in 1990, when cavers broke through massive roof falls to find a chamber in which stalagmites were scattered in two roughly circular forms. Initial radiocarbon dating suggested a date earlier than 47,000 years ago, but in 2013 a new radiometric method using uranium gave a date over 174,000 years ago. This prompted a more detailed investigation of the structure.

Meticulous study found complexity at every level. Over 400 stalagmites had been snapped off and from among the broken pieces Neanderthals had selected wide, straight mid-portions, obviously with particular sizes in mind. By aligning their 'speleofacts', they formed two rings on the chamber floor.
There were complex structures within the circles and evidence of bones, perhaps of bears, having been burned on them. The construction would have required the cooperation of a number of individuals over at least seven to eight hours. The burning episodes probably occcurred on a number of occasions. Wragg Sykes avoids speculating about a religious ceremony of some kind, but that is inevitably what comes to mind.
Steeped in eldritch vibes, the significance of Bruniquel's ring chambers is enormous; the only monumental structure known to have been made by Neanderthals. ... Bruniquel laughs in the face of austere, survival-only explanations for Neanderthal behaviour. It surely was made by thinking, also feeling, minds.
The Neanderthals disappeared some 40,000 years ago; we don't know why, althoug climate change may have been part of the cause—which, as Wragg Sykes remarks, carries a warning for us. We tend to think we were somehow fitter, more adaptable, better able to survive, but are we being hubristic?
Yet the Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People. They were state-of-the art human, just of a different sort.
This is likely to prove the definitive book on the Neanderthals for the non-specialist for a long time to come.


%T Kindred
%S Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art
%A Wragg Sykes, Rebecca
%I Bloomsbury
%C London
%D 2020
%G ISBN 978-1-4729-3748-0
%K archeology
%O eBook version, downloaded from Amazon 2021

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